One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Jeff drove to Raleigh to visit with our nephew Spencer, who had recently come north from Mississippi to take a graduate class. Both hungry, they went to a Mediterranean restaurant near Spencer’s dorm.
As they placed their orders at the counter, Jeff noticed the T-shirt worn by the young woman helping them. Bright red, it showed the silhouettes of three young people—not their faces, just their hair. Two of the figures were female. They seemed to be wearing hijabs. The young woman helping them also wore a headscarf. Jeff asked her what the drawing signified.
She glanced down at the shirt. “I don’t know,” she said apologetically. “This is my first day. But I’ll ask.”
They took a seat. As the woman brought their food, she told them the T-shirt was for an organization called Our Three Winners, set up to honor the three Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill in February 2015, supposedly over a parking dispute.
A few minutes later, a man approached them, a member of the family that owns the restaurant. Graying, perhaps a bit on the heavy side, he had a somewhat tentative but warm, kind expression. “I heard you were asking about the shirt,” he said. “My son was one of them.”
Deah Barakat was 23 and a second-year student in dental medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He, his wife Yusor Abu-Sahla, and Yusor’s sister Razan were shot in the couple’s apartment by Craig Hicks, a neighbor who had complained that they were being too loud at night and parking in his and his wife’s assigned spaces. Deah was found in the apartment’s doorway, shot many times. “Sprayed with bullets” is how one writer put it. Hicks had put his gun close to Yusor’s and Razan’s heads and pulled the trigger, execution style.
None of the three had parked in the Hicks’ spaces that day.
Deah’s father didn’t talk about the horrible details, other than to say that it was clearly a hate crime. He simply talked about Deah’s work with Habitat for Humanity and his efforts to raise money to provide dental care to Syrian refugees abroad. He described raising all three of his three children to be peaceful and to serve others. (Indeed, an article in the New Yorker quotes Deah’s former roommate as saying that during several earlier, tense conversations with Craig Hicks, Deah had been “the calming factor.”) He said, “I can assure you, my son did not cause an altercation over a parking space.”
The failure of investigators to classify the murders as a hate crime was deeply troubling to Deah’s father. “The authorities have been no help,” he said.
How did Jeff and Spencer respond to all this? They simply listened. They let Deah’s father pour out his soul. And they did not shrink from the horror. At one point Jeff said, “My son was killed in a car accident. It wasn’t anything like what you’ve been through, but I know how it feels to lose a son.”
The father stood by their table, talking, for more than ten minutes. He left them to their food then but returned later with pictures from his niece’s recent wedding. “I just wanted to show you my family,” he said. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were conspicuously absent.
I’ve written in previous blogs how vital it is to listen when someone in grief or trouble feels the urge to talk. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can ever give: our kind attention. But even more is needed in the wake of gruesome events like a hate crime.
So often we avoid looking fully at suffering. We’d rather it remain hidden. Deah’s father hoped for the opposite. He wanted people to acknowledge what had happened and name it precisely. He wanted it to remain in the public mind. Had our son been the victim of a horrible murder, I would long for the same. I hope Deah’s father will continue to tell his story and that, like Jeff and Spencer, others will grant him a sincere audience.
Describing the experience, Jeff said, “He left me with the feeling that I’d like to go back and talk to him some more about his son—listen to him some more.” The encounter reminded Jeff of another grieving father he’d met, whose daughter had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. That man, also, had wanted to talk and talk. “Maybe there needs to be some sort of support group for fathers—specifically fathers—who have lost children,” Jeff said. Perhaps so.
Seven years after Reid’s death, I’m thankful that Jeff and I have reached the point where we are strong enough to offer some support to the newly bereaved. I can remember what a balm it was to be among people who gave me a chance to talk about Reid, who would listen without asking questions and just let me rattle on. Who would pay attention to his story—the ultimate way of honoring him.
Last weekend Jeff went to Raleigh again to visit Spencer, and this time I was with him. We returned to the Mediterranean restaurant. It’s a nice little spot, with polished red tabletops, Turkish rugs on the walls, and bronze coffeepots on a high counter. A man sat in a corner, playing beautiful songs on an oud.
I was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sandals. All the other women in the restaurant were in hijab, modest tunics, leggings, and close-toed shoes. One woman in a beautiful black tunic gave me a surprised look. I smiled at her. She turned away. As she approached the counter, she glanced back at me with an inscrutable expression. I shook off my discomfort and sat down at our table next to Spencer—the wrong place, I realized belatedly. Clearly I should be seated next to my husband.
I’m sure the woman has seen plenty of Americans who dress like me and act as casually toward social mores. But for those few moments, I had a small taste of the cultural uneasiness she must experience, every day she wakes up in America.
The web site Our Three Winners gives more information about these three caring, committed young people and accepts donations to an endowment to continue their work with dental care missions and homeless initiatives. http://ourthreewinners.org/about/
Photo at top: Deah, Yusor, and Razan from a photo on the My Three Winners web site. Link above
Here’s a link to the New Yorker article, The Story of a Hate Crime.